22 January, 2022


UNP Crisis: The Problem Cannot Be Part Of The Solution 

By Dayan Jayatilleka 

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

The UNP is in decline not because it divided, but because its leadership is in a state of advanced deterioration and decay. The party has failed to replace or separate itself from the incubus of its hopelessly out of touch and durably unsuccessful Old Guard. If the UNP goes into the election without a dramatic gesture that can prove to the electorate that it has pivoted from the decadent dispensation exemplified and revealed by the RR tapes, it will be the fatal victim of a Cultural Revolution that makes the social backlash of 1956 seem child’s play.

Given the nationalist and populist tides in Sri Lanka as in most parts of the world today, if the UNP goes into the coming election with its current leader, or indeed with him in any visible, audible, symbolic or even token capacity, it will be crushed by the electorate, thereby endowing the incumbent administration with the two-thirds majority it explicitly and emphatically seeks. The resultant Constitutional transformations and changes of the electoral system that have been signaled; the power shift, hyper-centralization, unilateralism and unipolarity that this steamroller majority will permit; will generate systemic contradictions, crisis and conflict along vertical and horizontal axes. 

The bloodiest, most historically tragic cycles of violent conflict in Sri Lanka arose under two successive administrations which had nothing in common except one factor: they both enjoyed a two thirds majority in Parliament. OK, make that two factors in common, because both administrations leveraged their two-thirds majorities for new Constitutions that remodeled the State, in one instance rewriting the Social Contract (1972). I refer to the center-left administration of Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike (1970-1977) and the center-right administration of JR Jayewardene (1977-1987). 

The two-thirds majority made the political system so devoid of any balance, so hyper-centralized, so bereft of safety valves, that oceans of blood spewed out, cascaded. For a political analyst with a political science perspective, a parliamentary two thirds majority signals the prospect that the system turns dangerously unipolar. For a student of international relations with some experience of diplomacy, unipolarity in a political order, international and /or national, inevitably results in the abandonment of multilateral dialogue, negotiation, consultation, and consensus-seeking, and its replacement instead, by hegemonistic unilateralism, exit from bilateral and multilateral accords and the unilateral rewriting of contracts, charters, rules and norms.  

On both previous occasions in Sri Lanka a two-thirds majority in Parliament resulted from the backlash against a deeply unpopular opponent, the UNP administration of 1965-1970 and the SLFP administration of 1970-1977. 

The immediate removal of Ranil Wickremesinghe as UNP leader or the founding of a new pluralist-democratic political formation by the healthy, rational, progressive-reformist forces of the UNP, are the only two options by which to signal the end of and turn away from an era rejected by the vast majority of the majority. Such a rupture with the Ranil brand is the only way to avoid a wave of revulsion (sourced in the Bond Scam, the Geneva Resolution and the Ramanayaka tapes) which will decimate the mainstream democratic Opposition, ensuring a unipolar outcome with all the risks that entails and imbalance that will ensue.    

Ranil Wickremesinghe took over the UNP leadership in 1994. He got off to a halfway decent start, promising to be a social democrat, but in a few years, by 1997, he made three strategic decisions, major pivots, which actually prevented the UNP from doing what the SLFP and later the SLPP succeeded in doing to him and the UNP. The first shift was to abandon the ideological non-alignment and flexibility, indeed ambidexterity, that the UNP had demonstrated for the most part throughout its history. Instead he officially integrated the UNP with the global cartel of rightist and center-right parties, the International Democratic Union, headed by the UK Conservatives and the US Republicans. Following from that decision came the second, which was the most disastrous. He embraced the Liam Fox agreement and completely changed the UNP’s stance on the LTTE. 

Until that point, the UNP had attacked the Chandrika administration for its overly ambitious federalizing package of 1995-1997, thereby benefiting from the growing nationalist opposition to that appeasement. Dr. Jayalath Jayawardena who had donated air raid sirens to the besieged Sinhala ‘border’ villages, led the cross-country caravan of vehicles carrying the body of Ven. Kithalagama Seelarathana thero, the revered Dimbulagala monk, murdered by the marauding LTTE terrorists.  Arguably the UNP could have won in 1999 or 2005 if it maintained this line. Instead, after the 1997-98 Liam Fox pivot, the UNP led by Wickremesinghe would be seen as the party of appeasement. This lasts up to this day with the co-sponsorship of the 2015 Geneva Resolution as the latest offense against patriotic sentiment.    

The third of Ranil’s strategic errors of 1997 was to transform the UNP itself into a personal dictatorship while depriving it of its old Constitution that gave it a socially representative character and a strong mass base. This was symbolized by his marginalization of Sirisena Cooray the exceedingly able General Secretary of the party. The slide from Sirisena Cooray to Akila Viraj Kariyawasam tells the story of the UNP’s organizational and electoral erosion. 

Incredibly, Ranil Wickremesinghe has in 2020, just entered his fourth consecutive decade as UNP leader, a tenure which commenced in the 1990s. This is a world record in a democracy, and without any foundation in rationality. It is also unprecedented in any political setting given his conspicuous lack of success. The last time the UNP ever elected a leader of Sri Lanka it was in 1988, and that was Ranasinghe Premadasa. In the decades that Ranil has led the party, it has never produced a President. When Ranil ran for that office in 1999 and 2005, he lost. He and the UNP have had to be satisfied with the consolation prize of Prime Ministerial office, but that too has been ephemeral. Strikingly, the electorate took almost 15 years before its re-elected Mr. Wickremesinghe as PM, after having first elected him to that post in 2001, so allergic was the public to his performance.

Mr. Wickremesinghe has proposed a Leadership Council, which means that instead of himself as leader, it will be him and two others. One of the names he has proposed, Mr. Karu Jayasuriya would have been an excellent choice in 1999, 2005, 2010 and 2015 as candidate. Today however, he is indelibly remembered as the Speaker who deprived the Sinhalese of even the post of the Leadership of the parliamentary Opposition, by turning down the arithmetically obvious claims of the Mahinda Rajapaksa led JO.  

A more serious point is that the Sinhala Buddhist voter never buys religious piety or endorsement by the religious hierarchs as the sole political criteria. The 1965-1970 UNP administration of Dudley Senanayake overturned the calendar by instituting the Poya and pre-Poya holidays, but its pusillanimous stand on the Vietnam War, a conflict which mattered greatly to the Buddhist Sinhalese, contrasted sharply with Madam Bandaranaike’s robust support of the national liberation struggle of Vietnam.  Furthermore, the conspicuous presence of a Sinhala literary figure IMRA Iriyagolla as the UNP’s Minister of Education did nothing to placate Sinhala sentiment as he was a reactionary and polarizing figure. 

The Sinhala Buddhists voter will want a leader who stands for national sovereignty, national independence, territorial integrity, unity, i.e. is politically a patriot. 

Two arguments that have been presented against the immediate replacement of Mr. Wickremesinghe are especially unsound. The first is that Madam Bandaranaike led the SLFP for decades, which is true, but then again, she led the country, holding the topmost post in the System, the Prime Ministership, three times, unlike Mr. Wickremesinghe who has tried but never risen to the top or helped another UNPer to do so during his quarter century old leadership. The second argument is that any leadership change should only take place after and not before the election. If the UNP goes into this election with a leader or a so-called Leadership Council (a diaphanous camouflage) that reminds the voter of everything from the Bond Scam to the Geneva Resolution and most recently the RR tapes that reveals the decadent putrefaction that has set into the party and UNP government’s subculture under Ranil Wickremesinghe, then it is setting itself up for the bloodless electoral equivalent of a massacre.   

The general, conventional, commonplace argument that a split in the party would be deleterious, doesn’t compute. The UNP was confident that a split in the SLFP would ensure the latter’s defeat and the long-term incumbency of the UNP. On the contrary it was the split and the new formation that ensued, which enabled the then Opposition to rebrand and rally new, energetic social forces, scoring a string of victories starting with February 2018, and eventually drawing in the residual SLFP as a subordinate partner. 

Political history, including that of the UNP proves the same point. DS Senanayake split the Ceylon National Congress and launched the UNP when the 1947 election was in sight. SJV Chelvanayakam split the Tamil Congress of the revered GG Ponnambalam. SWRD split from the UNP. 

With the Bond scam, the February 2018 local government election debacle and the Easter shock, the UNP was in the worst electoral situation in its history. And yet, the nomination of Sajith Premadasa took place well after the SLPP’s strong nominee had done several laps around the racetrack. Of the 10 percentage points that separated the winner from the loser, surely a few must be attributed to that delay which ensured a significant lead for the frontrunner while handicapping the party’s own candidate, and a couple more points to the refusal of Mr. Wickremesinghe to follow the sterling example of JR Jayewardene in October 1988 and hand over totally to the new candidate, staying completely out of the picture, thereby allowing a besieged UNP to project a radically new profile. The shocking fact that by these two means, the Presidential election was virtually handed over on a platter to the UNP’s main challenger by the UNP leader himself, to the detriment of the UNP’s candidate, is in and of itself reason enough for the ouster of that leader and his ideology.

A leadership that is the problem (or the greater part of the problem) cannot be part of the solution. The minimum gesture required for the emergence of a strong pluralist-democratic and progressive Opposition is a dramatic, qualitative change in the UNP leadership or rebellious secession and a brand-new beginning. A failure to immediately implement either will disintegrate the Greens’ vote base. That may seem no great loss except that it will destroy the possibility of a viable democratic Opposition and a semblance of multipolar balance in the political order and system. 

*Dayan Jayatilleka is most recently the author of “Counter-Containment of Unipolarity: Dialectical Realism as World Outlook”, in Russia in Global Affairs, Vol 17, No 4, Oct-Dec 2019, Moscow, and “The Great Gramsci: Imagining an Alt-Left Project”, in “On Public Imagination: A Political and Ethical Imperative” eds. Victor Faessel, Richard Falk and Michael Curtin, Routledge, Taylor and Francis, New York and London, 2020.

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Latest comments

  • 4

    Politics is made in favour of Rajapkshes. So long the public perception would not change or have no chance to see it beyond, nothing will change in this GARBAGE dump style politics in war torn srilanka. Rajaapkshes should be accoutable for srilanken fall. They are only interested in their facists politics not leaving space young poltiicians to take the lead for a better future. The best would be, if any natural disastor would take Rajaakshes away, then things would have work for the good of all. This country are filled with easy targets that would change their views based on “fake RELICs” narrated to be brought by a reptile to one of the most sacred temple (once upon a time only) – Kelaniya Temple- which to the eyes of local and foreign experts is well planned and structured mislead in order to return to power. No investigations based on that. .. nor would so called TV channels utter a single world about the CREDIBLITY of it, but RELICs are being placed also today in that temple… what a joke ? Either the chief monk should be arrested or holding a discuss on the topic is PENDING withhout further notice. That says everythign about the level of this country.

    • 2

      Why people let them BEING treated with a raped woman – on a repeated mode, is the dillemal question raised by whole lot of people in and out of the country today. Either they are being taken as human shield by vicious politicians, and they are irrepairably stupid by nature. Be them southerners or notherners, they have much in common – that is they dont care about future generations. Just walk in a curve, being easiyl caught by cook politicians.

      • 5

        The Warmonger and War crime Denier typed:

        The Great Gramsci: Imagining an Alt-Left Project
        Gramsci Today
        March 2, 2017|Volume10 |Issue14

        “A neo-progressive public imagination must be based on a moral and the ethical perspective. An ethic of violence—that is, its correct use1—is a central component. It must acknowledge that whenever violence is wittingly used against the innocent, against unarmed civilians, be it by states or movements, it is terrorism and is therefore wrong and must be opposed. Terrorism cannot be deployed, condoned or ignored even when it is directed against an entity we are inimical towards. But progressive morality has a more general application. If someone reveals a truth, says what is right, causing no harm to the innocent, he or she must be applauded and defended on that occasion—be it Assange, Snowden… or Trump (“you think our country is so innocent?”2). This is the only way by which the moral, ethical and intellectual hegemony that Gramsci spoke of can be accumulated by the progressive cause.”

        How cool it is to possess the abilities of Eels and Chameleons!!!!

        We would rather urge him to write a novel similar to The Great Gatsby about the FIRST CLAN EMPEROR than a fiction on The Great Gramsci.

    • 4

      Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka,

      RE: UNP Crisis: The Problem Cannot Be Part Of The Solution

      “The UNP is in decline not because it divided, but because its leadership is in a state of advanced deterioration and decay”

      The cause?


      The Problem is Ranil W and his cronies.

      Any solution which contains the problem, will not be a solution, and will be infected.

      There is a saying in Sinhala, “Kiri welata goma danawa, wage”, like putting cow dung into milk, it will spoil the milk.

      There is a lot of cow dung in the UNP., as well as in SLFP and SLPP.. After all, most of them are Para-Sinhala Para-“Buddhists”, who follow Buddha-Agama, “Buddhas-religion”, distorting Buddhism and insulting the Buddha, to whom the imbeciles, mean IQ 79, prostrate and depend on for the votes to get elected.

      A land like not other!

    • 4

      Dayan Jayathilaka,-

      Controversal self-proclaimed POLITICAL analyst – aka lap dog of Mahinda Jarapakshe is marching forward with inputs – against his chidhood enemy Mr Wickramasinghe going by personal vendetta.

      If this bugger’s father would have risen up from his pit, he would go in to pieces not being able to digest the baisedness of this man.

      • 1

        Well said!!!

  • 10

    The problem is Batalanda Ranil himself, who knowingly or unknowingly made a “crematorium” inside Siri Kotha, where UNP is currently being slowly, slowly cremated, lock stock & barrel. hip hip huray!

  • 10

    Ranil is a close ally to Mahinda. Mahinda will save Ranil similar to Ranil saved Mahinda. If Srilanka remove both Mahinda and Ranil, there is a future for the country and people. Otherwise no one can save this island.

  • 1

    Well ongoing current crisis of that UNP now declined is an imminent.
    No force can STOP that death of UNP that change by even who talk of skillful of Political Science. …..!@
    Which is that UNP was a hard-line pro-Western oriented that Neo-liberal outlet…. Eventually that classes of “political-democracy” that UNP is a Representatives of USA and Western allies and its vital interest.The survival of Western democracies has come very bad end .
    Therefor as a political classes that UNP’s are lackeys of USA. Such a Party crisis in depth process of withing that direction going towards of that moribund social forces .
    Principle nature of UNP and its character that become anti- People movement by last 71 years as PARTY of ruling classes governance .And such PARTY of UNP stand for a pro- USA’s puppet. While against Nation economic and political Sovereignty of Island.
    That UNP become key stumbling block of progress and development Capitalism an Island last SEVEN DECADES.
    That is how UNP turn into main barriers Economic development and Political Democracy and Fair social justice of in ours Democratic Republic of Sri Lanka

    The People’s are the driving force of Democracy that cannot win until defeated role model of Politics in UNP -in Parliment by majority voters.

    Ongoing leading lumpen members that UNP is not suitable for even an opposition party to become People’s representatives in House of Parliment.

  • 0

    Finding a solution is the problem. There is no other problem.

  • 2

    I think Ranil is a figure-head for certain classes of people: Colombo-based upper class who communicate primarily in English and follow western culture as their role model AND the rich westernized-Tamils who have the support of the US and UK.

    The latter believe that they can control the politics of the country by using Ranil to do the dirty work of the west in undermining the sovereignty of the country to benefit the western powers (or more accurately their corporations and politicians).

    That is why Ranil is still in power!

  • 1

    An excellent article that explains the current leadership problem in the UNP from a historical and political perspective. Leadership transition in the UNP is a natural process. Currently there is competing interests and forces within its domain. No doubt the internal struggle for leadership will end in an explosion(unmanaged) or a compromise. Lets see soon!

  • 4

    The man has been let go as ambassador of Russia by the new GR/MR regime, so we unfortunately have to endure more of this moral and ethical contortions.
    He invokes Ranjan Ramanayake’s tapes, but Victor Ivan has exposed the rot in the Supreme Court starting with Sarath Silva as AG, and the conditions under which CBK made him CJ. The same Sarath Silva later became a supporter of MR/GR. The ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ voter had full knowledge of it all and continues to be the cause of the rot. It is no use blaming one party or a few individuals for this mess in the country.

  • 2

    I don’t think that your expertise in political science & vast (=long) experience in international diplomacy have provided much help in understanding the true nature of crisis of the UNP under Ranil & therefore, to propose a practical solution. You have sated three major mistakes Ranil has made since he became the leader. Out of those three the first two are not necessarily bad moves. As a matter of fact, abandoning the so-called non-aligned politics was is correct one b’cos it was nothing but a cat’s-paw of already dying Soviet Empire. Ranil’s policy on Tamil conflict may have angered racists on both sides but it was the right strategy both politically & militarily b’cos it helped isolating Prabhakaran from already exhausted non-militant Tamils.

    However, you have failed to develop the third point which, as far I can see, contains the kernel of the problem & the solution as well: Failing to understand the heartbeat of the voters. I believe that Ranil’s personality of difficulty in mingling with public is the biggest cause that drive wedge between the voters & the party. His closest friends who made the inner circle of the party, including the Gen Sec Akila, also were not much help.

    Can the problem be turned into a solution? Since it stem from a behavioral error, with proper adjustments, it certainly should be. But, I think that the problem has spread so deep into the system of Ranil that it is nearly impossible to correct by simple behavioral change of only one person; for, it also need Ranil to abandon the whole edifice surrounding him including his own kith & kin. Ranil will never make such a sacrifice on behalf the voters who, he thinks, are not educated enough to his level of understanding of nation’s need and therefore, not loyal enough to stick with him. In other words, you have come to the right conclusion from a wrong route!

  • 1

    UNP is being manipulated by different factions.
    Karu might want his son in Law Navin Dissanayake to be future Leader!
    I am not sure Sajith or Navin are good candidates to Lead SL in the correct direction
    They (UNP)really have to find the best candidate to lead them in to the next Parliamentary Elections

  • 2

    A strong opposition is fundamental to an effective democracy and UNP needs to perform its function as a robust opposition. UNP should step up now instead of infighting. Surely there is suitable material in the TNA to engage with the UNP to bring the party to its senses. Sadly, most commentators are not resident in Sri Lanka.

  • 0

    DJ doing what DJ does best: rejoicing in the misfortunes of others.

    RW and MR are two sides of the same coin. The two (like many others it must be said) don’t know when to leave the stage, gracefully, and allow the next generation to give us their best shot.

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